This article is the second installment of a series in which I use my Observational Rushing Numbers to shed light on just how good the 2017 rookie running backs were at carrying the ball. You can find each previous article about these numbers on the series’s hub, including a similar article about Christian McCaffrey.
For myself and most others, Joe Mixon was a member of 2017’s incredible top tier of rookie talents, placing sixth in both my final running back/wide receiver talent rankings and DLF’s March 2017 rookie ADP. The dynasty community saw him fall to, in my eyes, one of the very worst landing spots (due to a poor offensive line, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill at the goal line, and Andy Dalton at quarterback) during the NFL Draft.
But after Mike Williams’s injury issues came further into the light and Dalvin Cook slipped in the Draft due to an awful Combine performance and off-the-field issues, Mixon actually rose two spots in DLF ADP. It’s unclear whether the rationale in moving him up was that his value actually improved, or that it merely dropped less than Cook’s and Williams’s. Either way, Mixon’s 3.5 yards per carry mark was about as poor as part of the fantasy world (myself included) expected, but he made up for some of that inefficiency with a surprising 212 intended touches in 14 games.
The dynasty community’s reaction to that stat line reveals how drafters probably felt in summer 2017 and how they certainly feel now about Joe Mixon on the field. Much like Christian McCaffrey, Mixon did not see his value drop — if anything, it increased to a second-round startup pick — which indicates that there was no market correction, and thus that the Bengal was expected to have an inefficient 2017. Since that’s the case, and because that 3.5 Y/C is so poor, we can logically assume that the overarching community still loves Mixon’s talent, just not the current situation — that poor blocking and other surrounding factors hurt his efficiency, not his own talent.
Rushing efficiency is just one variable of a few (volume and receiving ability are the other two major players) when it comes to a back’s rushing productivity, and some might argue that it doesn’t matter to much of an extent, but I’d disagree: Given how replaceable NFL backs have become, players aren’t going to sustain their workloads from year to year if they don’t provide teams with above-average productivity. Sometimes, that happens even when it’s the O-line’s fault, and not their own. In other words, rushing efficiency serves as one crucial determinant of future volume. Thus, when evaluating young back’s seasons, it’s vital to inspect why they were or were not producing well with the opportunities they got — what yards per carry measures.
Yards per carry is a tricky equation defined roughly equally by two separate variables (running back and blocking), so we can’t be sure that the community’s assumption is really the case without looking further. Much like I did with McCaffrey, I’ll be using this space to take that further look, using my Observational Rushing Numbers (ORNs) to see just how effective Mixon and his offensive line were in 2017, and how much blame for the low Y/C each side is really responsible for.
(I’ve taken these tracking stats from Weeks 1-14 for each rookie running back with at least 75 carries. If you’re wondering what any of the stats mean in a fuller sense, check the series glossary.)
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